Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Trauma Recovery

Last year, the cat in our household had two very unpleasant experiences with loose dogs. One of those has left my son with a scar, the second resulted in the cat hiding in a tree for four hours. My Anderson only goes out on a lead, so it was evident after the first incident that he’d become really fearful of all dogs. The tree incident was an overreaction to a situation that had too much in common with the first event.

Being a lively young cat, he really does need to go out for some exercise when he can. So, we started doing things to try and reduce the stress of dealing with dogs. Tom would pick him up when there was any dog around and I’d put myself between him and the dog. We talked to him, trying to sound reassuring. It wasn’t long before he was treating dogs on leads as much less of a threat and at this point he doesn’t simply panic when he sees a loose dog. He’s still very cautious, but he’s learned that the traumatic incident wasn’t normal and he’s recovering.

When it comes to humans, it’s often the case that recovery is tied up with getting to feel that the trauma is not the new normal. That of course has implications for anyone trapped in a traumatic situation. You can’t heal until you’re out of it. For a while, all dogs looked like a threat to Mr Anderson, and being a small cat, there wasn’t much he could do to change that. What’s helped him recover is that we’ve done things he could make sense of that have helped him feel safer and from there he’s been able to gather evidence that not all dogs are going to try and attack him.

In humans, we tend to treat recovery from trauma as the job of the individual. A therapist might hold safe space for you to think about things, but the odds are you’ll have to deal with the unsafe situations and try to overcome what happens to you. That’s really hard. It’s much easier to feel safe when you have people around you who are actively helping you to feel safer.

Mr Anderson has gone from reacting like he was afraid all dogs were going to try and kill him, to reacting as though he thinks some dogs might be friendly. He didn’t do that on his own.


Have you tried taking painkillers?

Last week I was talking to a friend about some of the things I am wrangling with. Said friend came back and acknowledged that they had no idea what they’d do in that situation. It was, in many ways, a really good moment.

I tend to be fairly focused on problem solving, and failing that on figuring out how to keep going and how to get through things. Some of the things I’m dealing with cannot be fixed, only managed and lived with. So on one hand, advice for how to fix things is great and I actively seek that, but people simply acknowledging that they don’t know is also great and saves me a lot of time and energy.

Like most people struggling with various long term issues, I get offered advice from people who have little or no experience of the problems in question. People who think everything can be fixed with mindfulness, yoga, time in nature, a bit of time off… and while that’s undoubtedly well meant it’s also not even slightly helpful. If you aren’t dealing with the same issues as someone, what you can think of in five minutes is really unlikely to be something we haven’t thought of. We’ve probably already tried. If it was as easy to fix as these fixes suggest, we wouldn’t even be in that much trouble in the first place.

What’s even worse than the suggestions from people who don’t know, is when they insist on doubling down on their solutions and not taking no for an answer. One of the most commonly occurring examples of this is being asked to consider antidepressants if you are talking about being depressed. Now, I guarantee you anyone who has got as far as knowing they are depressed has already considered antidepressants. They may have tried it and found that either it didn’t help, or that the side effects were unbearable. They may not fancy the risk around an intervention that can actually increase your suicidal feelings. Antidepressants really help some people, but not everyone. For the person who isn’t a doctor and has no experience of serious depression, they can seem like a magic bullet, but they aren’t.

Similar things happen around diet, exercise, supplements… part of this comes from the toxic idea that illness is basically the consequence of not trying hard enough and if you tried harder you’d get better. This is nasty stuff, fundamentally untrue for many conditions, and can be harmful. I think part of it comes from wanting to believe that if they try hard enough, they won’t get sick themselves.

I think there’s also an issue of people who have had mild run-ins with a condition and don’t realise they had a mild dose. I see this a lot around depression. If you can cure your depression with a bit of mindfulness and a nice bath, then you weren’t seriously depressed to begin with and your interventions won’t fix the person whose mind is being crushed into dysfunction by a much more dangerous form of the condition.

It’s ok not to know what to do. It’s ok not to have answers. It can be helpful just to listen and express care for the person who is suffering, or to offer to be there if they figure out anything that would help. Often it’s relevant to offer practical interventions. The friend in question who was so helpful last week didn’t suggest I should go for a walk, but took me for a walk somewhere I could not otherwise go, listened to me, encouraged me, and was kind. That was genuinely helpful.


Do what thou wilt

It’s probably the most famous Crowley quote – Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. I’m good at will. I’ve spent much of my life doing things more by willpower than anything else, but it has a price.

Recently, my quest for improved health and my desire for healing has had me looking at brain chemistry. There are a number of things I don’t really experience, and never have – feelings of reward are one of those. I gather that part of what impacts on ADHD brain is a shortage of dopamine, leading to a latching on to anything that gives the person that kind of reward. Short term rewards are thus more tempting than long term goals. That isn’t me. I just use my will to get the needful things done and accept that I never feel anything much around achievement or success. This likely contributes to my ongoing issues with depression.

There’s no way of testing for any of this medically. However, as I poked around in what people have figured out about dopamine, I learned that it is also the chemistry of learning, attention, willpower and concentration. That started me thinking. Dopamine can fairly be assumed to be a finite supply in any given body. Am I simply using all of mine for willpower and attention?

If there was a time in my life when  I didn’t have to push to get things done, I don’t remember it. This hypermobile body has always been challenging, and making my body move, and even trying to keep up physically has always been demanding. Growing up, there was always shame around not being busy, useful, productive. I push through the fatigue. I push through pain. I get up and work when the depression makes me want to just lie there. I push.

At the moment I’m trying to become more aware of when that pushing happens and what it feels like. I’m trying to stop rather than just pushing all the time. More breaks, more rest, more things to lean on, maybe some better planning around how I use my time and resources. It will be interesting to see what happens, and whether cutting back on the willpower frees up some chemical resources for feeling good, or rewarded. If anything interesting emerges, I’ll write about it.

Doing everything by will is certainly stressful. Maybe willing things isn’t that great. Maybe pushing all the time to make things happen isn’t ideal. Maybe trying to will myself into things is no more sensible than trying to force my will onto the rest of the world and maybe I would be more comfortable if I could let go of all that and learn to be a bit softer in myself.


How not to be lonely

Loneliness is very much a modern plague and has terrible, health-undermining impacts on people. Some of it can simply be attributed to the amount of time we spend working and the consequences of being exhausted from that. People are often quick to blame TV, streaming, computer games, the internet and anything else involving a screen. I’m doubtful about that – I’ve formed some powerful, life-changing relationships through the internet. Turning to screens for comfort and distraction strikes me as being a symptom more than a cause.

Relationships aren’t things that happen by magic. They depend a great deal on what we’re willing to give of ourselves, and I think that’s where a lot of people get into trouble. Relationships require you to be emotionally available and honest, to be willing to be vulnerable and to make the time for someone.

Along the way I’ve run into so many people who were clearly averse to doing some or all of those things. People for whom investing time and care in other people seemed too much like work. People who wanted the freedom of being unaccountable. If you feel uncomfortable about people caring about you, then you aren’t going to have much of a relationship with them. If you want to be able to disappear off for days, or weeks on end without checking in, you can hardly expect people to invest in you emotionally and just put up with not knowing what’s going on. A person cannot keep everyone else safely at arm’s length and realistically expect to have substantial relationships.

Of course there are many ways in which we can have fleeting, superficial contact with other humans. We say hi to the person at the checkout, we nod to people we see each day when commuting and so forth. In face of desperate loneliness, these small points of contact can offer some relief. But not much. Being around people doesn’t ease loneliness in the way that being involved with other people does.

I think there’s an emotional immaturity around wanting the unconditional care of a parent from people who are not your parents. The desire to have care and affection bestowed by someone to whom you feel no obligation in return is something I’ve seen repeatedly. Casting other people in the role of your mother (more often than making people into fathers, in my experience) and then feeling free to also punish them for being too mothering/smothering is a pattern I’ve seen play out a few times now. I have no desire to be cast as mother in the life of someone who wants to be a perpetual teenager cliche, acting out, demanding freedom and expecting unconditional love.

Unless we are willing to face each other as equals, with equal responsibility for the relationship and comparable investment on both sides, loneliness is inevitable. We should not be looking to other adults in our lives to replicate the relationships we had with our parents, or step into the role if that’s been lacking for us. People who cannot or will not give of themselves are bound to be lonely. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and offer you unconditional love, that’s the essence of your problem right there.

It is of course possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Not everyone wants or needs a great deal of contact with other humans. What’s on my mind in writing this is the people who talk about being lonely but also don’t seem to recognise that their unwillingness to give of themselves is a key contributor to all of that.


He made me do it

CW domestic abuse.

One of the areas of language use I’m currently scrutinising is how I use the idea of made/make. It’s interesting to ask where the balance of power really lies, where I might be abdicating or ignoring my own power, and how unhelpful habits of conventional phrasing are in this regard. He made me do it.

It’s a phrase that comes up a lot around domestic abuse. The idea that the victim made the abuser act as they did is something many victims are subjected to. You made me angry. You made me hit you. As though the abuser is powerless and has no choice in face of the victim’s actions. That sense of being to blame for what happens is part of what keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships as they try to fix things, atone and do better.

The idea that someone else’s behaviour made you react in a certain way is popular with small children. I think much depends on how the adults around you then handle things. Which brings me to the flip-side of this issue – that it is equally problematic when people deny all cause and effect and insist that we are all responsible for how we react to things and not responsible for what we provoke in others. Upsetting someone isn’t an excuse for following through with violence, but at the same time, emotional harm needs taking seriously. If someone says you are making them miserable, the answer is not to tell them that they are wholly responsible for how they choose to feel. 

We can and do make each other feel things. The person doing the feeling has some control over that process, but it isn’t total control. People can make you feel things you do not want to feel. Our words, actions, inactions all impact on other people emotionally. It may not always go as we intended, but if you want any power over the outcomes you have to be willing to also take responsibility. Can we make each other take action? I think how we act on our feelings is normally an issue of personal responsibility, but there are times when it isn’t.

People can be trained to act in certain ways. My understanding is that this is an important principle in military training. We often train creatures on these terms, with fear and threat of punishment so that they do exactly what is wanted of them without hesitation. We may choose to use rewards in the same way. If the threats and rewards on offer are significant enough, saying no isn’t really an option. If you’re given an electric shock every time you do the ‘wrong’ thing it won’t take you long to learn and stick with the ‘right’ behaviour.

I suspect most of us prefer to believe that we couldn’t be trained in this way. Sustained programs designed to train us will have that effect over time. Most of us cannot effectively resist such things. It’s not a comfortable thing to consider. 

When it comes to writing, I’m comfortable discussing things in terms of how I am made to feel. I watch out for inadvertently saying ‘made to do’. At the moment, no one is running power over me in a way that makes me do anything – although that has been an issue historically. I’m watching out for the times when I give too much power away, ascribing too much significance to whatever prompts a feeling and not recognising how much is intrinsic to me. I take it seriously if someone habitually makes me feel uncomfortable. I step away from people who want to make me responsible for their actions. I’m not going to make anyone do anything, if I can help it.


Staying Alive

CW suicide

I can’t remember when I first had the experience of wanting to die, but I was young. It wasn’t so much an urge to kill myself, more the desire to have never existed. By the time I was 11, I was trying to figure out how to justify my existence day to day. At that point I was fighting to work out how to live, but that’s changed over the years. 

If I could simply stop breathing by choice, then I would. That’s part of my everyday experience. It has to do with living with pain and always being tired and feeling so worn down most of the time that I have no idea how to keep going. There’s also too often nothing much I’m excited about and moving towards that makes me actively feel like I want to live. This is not the same as wanting to commit suicide.

I’ve never actually experienced it as wanting to kill myself. Sometimes what I have is an intense and overwhelming desire to not be in pain anymore – physical or emotional. Sometimes it is a thing that rises up within me and seems intent on killing me – and thus far I’ve managed to fight that, although what it brings up for me is violent, terrifying and close to overwhelming. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it feels separate from me.

I’ve reached out for help many, many times. As it happens I’ve had years of asking people for things that would give me a better chance of not being in so much distress. What this has taught me is that help mostly isn’t available. On days when I’m struggling with self-harming impulses and the thing in my head that wants to kill me is menacing me, it’s hard to imagine who I could take that to who could actually help me. I’m not an easy person to comfort – this seems to be a brain chemistry issue. I’ve reached out for medical help, and it wasn’t there and I don’t have it in me to keep fighting – be that people or systems. I’ve been fighting myself for a long time. At this point I think I’ve worked out who would be both willing and able to step up in an emergency, but its taken a while.

Sometimes, the only thing I can do is to keep doing something. To put some kind of action between me and my death. To go one breath at a time in trying to figure out what there is to live for and how to keep going. I mostly don’t know how to keep going. But if I’m typing, I’m not doing anything else and there have been times when writing blog posts has got me through.

I did not write this blog today, it is not an urgent issue so no one needs to feel like they have to come and rescue me right now. Part of the point of writing is to try and explain so that other people are better equipped for their own experiences and the suffering of people in their own lives. Part of the point is to flag up that people won’t always tell you when the help they ask for is a matter of life and death for them. It’s not always easy to tell what might get someone through an otherwise impossible day and how much good you can do without knowing it.

And sometimes the answer is to write, because writing isn’t dying. Today (the day when I wrote this), not existing is an attractive idea – more so than it usually is. I can see no way forward, no way of doing anything good enough, no way of making my existence bearable. I’ve been here many times and I know things won’t get better but that I may learn how to make do with less and how to keep moving despite how much it all hurts.


Survival strategies

CW Eugenics, self harm, suicide.

I can’t imagine considering another human being undeserving of life on the basis of how useful or productive they are. And yet, here I am with this incredibly fascist piece of thinking lodged in my head, but only applicable to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I had to justify my right to exist. Certain things – failure, uselessness, feedback that I am worthless or unloveable – inclines me to think that I’m not entitled to exist. Too much of that pushes me into self harm and suicidal thoughts.

I don’t know where it came from originally, but it is old and deeply rooted. My sense of my own right to live is dependent on other people finding me useful enough. This is a painfully subjective measure and leaves me ridiculously vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback. It’s taken a long time to unpick what is going on for me when I crash into the worst and most dangerous levels of depression. I experience a terrible rage, inward facing, over the things I cannot fix or make good enough. I know there is no one else I would judge on such terms as these, and no one else I would have any wish to hurt in the ways I hurt myself.

I’m trying a new approach to deal with it. I’ve found with internet trolls that if they call me ugly or stupid or worthless, the best move is to agree with them, because it stops them in their tracks. So, whatever this voice in my head is, I’m trying the curious process of agreeing with it when it launches into telling me that I am useless and unloveable and deserve to die. I say yes to it.

And then I visualise Boris Johnson.

The UK’s current Prime Minster is useless to the point of being a danger to people. He is arrogant, uninformed, reluctant to make decisions, and as a consequence of his poor choices there have been a lot of needless deaths in the UK, and will likely be many more. And yet there he is, still running the country. And while I think we’d all be better off without him, there’s no desire for violence in that thought. 

So I visualise Boris Johnson, and remind myself that however awful I think I am, I haven’t killed thousands of people with my incompetence. 

I’ve learned over the years that positive affirmations don’t work for the stuff in my head. Trying to be nice to me can actually make things worse in here, increasing both the rage and the panic. Being nice to myself doesn’t reliably feel safe. What I need most at the moment is to build the confidence that it might be ok to be useless. That being unloveable should not be a death sentence. That a mistake is not a reason to punish someone. I’m slowly building the thought that I can be crap and still be allowed to live.

In the past I spent a lot of time and energy trying and failing to be good enough. Because there’s always going to be someone for whom I’m not good enough, no matter how good I am. I’m flawed and faliable, I don’t know everything, I can’t see the future – I am bound to get things wrong, we all get things wrong. The idea that if I’m not perfect then I don’t deserve to live sets an impossible, tortuous standard. There is no winning at this. The only way out is to stop playing this toxic game.

I am frequently crap. It is ok to be crap. 


External sources for internal viability

The advice around mental health is consistent. Don’t base your self esteem on external sources like approval or achievement. Don’t base your will to live on things outside of yourself, or other people. Don’t make your sense of self about how other people treat you. We’re encouraged not to be too focused on things we see as evidence of success or on the opinions of other people.

All of which assumes you have some kind of internal resource to draw on where you can realistically base those things. I blogged a while ago about what it’s like having nothing to reboot from, and this line of thought follows on from that. 

Internal resources are something most people will build during childhood. The experience of feeling secure – practically and emotionally – is a key experience. The child who grows up feeling loved and wanted, respected, valued and worthwhile will internalise those values. If you grow up without those experiences, all of your sense of self worth depends on the conditions you are in, and the conditions placed on you. The less-functional childhood doesn’t offer unconditional acceptance, instead the child learns the terms on which they might earn praise, approval and other affirmations.

For some children, there is never the experience of being good enough. This can particularly impact on children who show early signs of being talented, gifted or unusually clever and who are then burdened with high expectations and come to feel inadequate as a consequence. I hear from my neurodivergent friends about the ways in which not being able to do what the neurotypical kids did impacted on their childhood. It’s not always about deliberate cruelty, control or neglect – although it can be. Well meaning parental ambition can really mess a kid up. 

If you have nothing to reboot from, you may find it really hard as an adult trying to build a sense of self worth from scratch. But here’s the thing – happy children don’t actually do that by themselves. They develop self esteem from the supportive, encouraging feedback they receive from the people around them. Trying to grow confidence or a feeling that your life has meaning as a solitary, inner process is hard, perhaps impossible. The key is to find people who can help you with that.

Unconditional care isn’t something that only parents can provide to children. Your true friends will value you for who you are, and they won’t make you jump through hoops to win approval. There are many people out there who will treat you with respect and dignity simply because you exist. There are people who default to kindness. If you grew up without this, you may find it hard to trust or recognise, but that’s the inner work to focus on. Work out how to find the people who make you feel good about yourself. Start imagining that you are allowed to feel good and be happy, and that you don’t have to jump through hoops to earn that. Find the people who don’t want you to jump through ever more hoops.

Mental health is not something that exists in  isolation. There’s always a context. How we treat each other has huge implications for our wellbeing. Some people grow up with the confidence to know that they deserve kindness and respect. Some people don’t start from there, and can struggle to imagine deserving to be treated well. No one can fix that on their own, but we can do a great deal together. 


Exciting times!

Excitement is one of my favourite emotions. It’s the difference between lying in bed feeling apathetic, and actually wanting to get up and greet the day with an open heart and a desire to get stuck in. As someone who suffers a lot from depression, having any capacity for excitement marks being in a better place.

Of course being excited is risky. It means moving towards new and unfamiliar things, taking chances, caring, investing, trying… and when everything is awful, there can be little scope for that. It’s also a feeling that runs very close to anxiety, and a body exhausted by anxiety can’t afford excitement. Chemically, they’re much the same, and while my brain knows the difference between excitement and anxiety, I don’t think my body does.

Excitement is a future-facing sort of emotion, so it’s something that depends on living in relationship with time rather than being mostly focused on the present. It’s a call to action along with the inspiration and energy to move. To be excited is to be able to trust that things will be good, that I can get things right, that there is hope.

If I step into the feeling of excitement, and what it calls for, then there might also be joy. Excitement promises the opportunity to make good things. If I can act on that, there may be delight, satisfaction, pleasure, or feelings of justice and appropriateness. In making something better, I will feel better. 

This is a key emotion for me around creativity. I particularly relish opportunities to be excited about ideas, and to share that excitement with other people. It’s life enriching. I also note that its not enough for me to just be excited about ideas without acting on that in some way. I get really frustrated dealing with people who talk a good fight but have no interest in putting any of it into action. I also struggle dealing with people who want to be excited by things and for whom the state of excitement is itself the goal. I’m interested in it as the beginning of a process, not as a state to achieve for its own sake.

If I’m excited enough about something, that will carry me through the times when there’s just a hard slog of work to do. I’ve recently finished all of the colouring for our next graphic novel. Sometimes colouring is exciting, but often it isn’t and is simply about getting a job done to as high a standard as I can manage. Excitement around future projects and prospects helped me get through that.

And right now, I’m excited about what comes next!


When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.